Sunday, 21 December 2014
Mendelssohn Is On The Roof by Jiří Weil
In my triptych of black satires informed by the atrocities of the Second World War, I had high hopes that this oft-neglected author would offer something as equally entertaining as that of Vonnegut and Heller, showcasing the rational humanism alongside the absurd and insane with a dash of gallows humour. It certainly starts out that way, with a low level municipal officer in occupied Prague being tasked with the removal of a statue of the 'Jewish'* composer Mendelssohn from the roof of the Prague Academy of Music by the office of Acting Reich-Protector of Bohemia and Moravia, SS-Obergruppenführer Reinhard Heydrich. Of course, he knows nothing of the likeness of Mendelssohn, so chooses instead the statue with the largest nose, which unfortunately belongs to Wagner.
I was salivating at the prospect of another comic masterpiece from Central Europe in the veins of Hrabal or Čapek, but sadly this is the high tide of comedy in the novel, and it occurs at the very beginning. What follows is a novel of fear, oppression and deep tragedy, told in as matter-of-fact a fashion as is possible considering the author himself faked his own death to avoid transportation to the death camps. In what reminds me of a Stephen King novel, the cast of characters introduced, including Heydrich himself, are ushered quickly through the farce to their doom, either to re-assignment to the Russian Front and inevitable death, or to the crematoria of the Final Solution, often under the auspices of the Gestapo. Heydrich avoids both fates, but dies in hospital after the infamous assassination attempt of Operation Anthropoid. Any humour, if there is some to be found, is sardonic. Throughout, the motif of the statue haunts the prose, whether it is the mocking statues of former heroes and patriots of various conquering or conquered nations, or Justice herself, astride roads and rivers, guarding bridges, or being smashed in air-raids, or the petrification of a person through fear, their inability to fight the rising darkness rendering them complicit in its abhorrent actions. And in a chilling finalé, the only truly innocent characters in the whole novel die just as the Russian tanks roll into Berlin to crush the remaining German forces and liberate Europe from the grip of Nazism.
I'm left a little raw by the experience of reading Weil, and I suspect I might leave it a little while before I return to the literature of the Holocaust, if at all. However, I'm in complete agreement with the preface by Philip Roth that the brevity with which Weil delivers his testimony is the "fiercest commentary that can be made on the worst that life has to offer." As an apologist for overlooked Czech writing, I can commend this able storyteller with no fear of it being considered controversial and free of my habitual cynicism and sarcasm.
* In parenthesis here as Dr Rabinovich, Jewish scholar, points out later in the novel that Mendelssohn was christened as a child so he couldn't be Jewish